by B.B. Pelletier

Today, I want to talk about something different. I’ve been reading two gun auction catalogs from the most recent Rock Island Auction, and something caught my eye. This auction was held last month, and it included hundreds of very desirable and collectible firearms. The first thing that I noticed was the low estimated prices of some really fine vintage guns.

For example, there were some first-generation Colt single-action revolvers that had a very low estimate. One was a Wells Fargo-marked revolver that had been restored to almost new condition, but it had a factory letter proving that it was indeed a rare Wells Fargo model. It was in near-mint condition due to the restoration. I knew that a restoration on a gun like this would lower the value greatly, but not to an estimated $2,500-$4,000, which was the auction estimate! I would have thought that it would still be in the $8,000 to $12,000 range, despite the restoration. And, if original, perhaps $15,000-$20,000.

Yes, I’m aware that auction estimates are not the final prices the guns sell for, and also that auction houses estimate conservatively, but this seems ridiculous to me. However, that is not my point.

Here is what really caught my eye, and what I absolutely cannot understand. On one page there is a “Scarce Sharps Model 1853 Slant Breech Sporting Rifle.” This rifle was manufactured between 1854 and 1859 and is in very good condition. It is mechanically excellent. And the auction estimate is $2,750 to $4,250.

On the very next page, there is a “Special Order Shiloh Sharps Model 1874 Single Shot Rifle with Custom Oak Case.” This is a rifle made within the past few years by the Shiloh Sharps Company in Big Timber, Montana. It is in excellent plus condition in an oak case and the auction estimate is $3,500 to $4,750.

The Shiloh Sharps rifle is a beautiful gun to be sure, but they make them every day of the week. It has no historic connection. It’s a replica of a 19th century rifle that went off the market 125 years ago, and an original Sharps in very good condition should be worth more than a gun you can buy today, in my opinion.

The auction house estimates a newly made “Sharps” to be more valuable than an original! Yes, the condition of the new gun is better than that of the original, but not that much better. Who in their right mind would even want a newly made replica gun when they could have an original for the same money OR LESS?

I’m not finished with this. Obviously, there are people who will want the newly made gun and are willing to pay more for it than for the original. Maybe they’re afraid of shooting an original gun and want the better metallurgy in the modern gun. Beyond that, I don’t understand the thinking. That tells me I don’t know everything there is to know about people and their buying habits. I’ll come back to that thought in a bit, but let’s move on.

Two “BB guns”
While watching American Pickers, a reality TV show in which two guys travel all over the country buying up dirty, rusty antiques to resell, they happened upon two vintage underlever pellet guns in one episode. They called them BB guns, of course, and the owner agreed with them. One of the pickers said he had never seen a mechanism quite like this before and the seller said he never would see one like it again.

Yeah! But only if they stay away from airgun shows! The “BB guns” the pickers found were vintage BSA underlevers made after World War I, and on a good day in the condition they were in, both guns might bring $300 at an airgun show. But the pickers paid $450 for both and they expected to double their money, because, as the man said, these BB guns were “real rare.”

Then, to compound their mistake, the pickers asked Daisy what the guns were. Of course Daisy has very little knowledge of vintage airguns that they didn’t make (oh, that’s right, these are BB guns), but they got to flash a still of their 2009 remake of the 1886 wirestock gun on the screen as the narrator babbled incoherently about BB guns.

I bet you think I’m ready to pounce on the American Pickers for their faux pas? Not at all. Because they probably will double their money, since the rest of humanity knows even less about vintage airguns than they do.

It’s mostly about people
And that’s when it hit me. Buying and selling collectible things has very little to do with the objects themselves and a lot to do with the ability to read people. I recently bought a .22 Winchester rifle from a gun store here in Texas. It was an unlovely thing that had been languishing in that store for over a year. I think they wanted $200 for the gun. I examined it for a long time, and I think I attracted the interest of the store owner, who thought he might finally have a sale for this rack queen. He offered it to me for $100 out the door, tax paid! What he didn’t know and I did, was this is a rare variation of this model rifle and it was made in 1939 — the first year of production.

This chrome-plated (not nickel, but chrome) Winchester model 74 Gallery Special is so rare that even the Blue Book of Gun Values doesn’t list it. But, the NRA Book of Firearms Disassembly does, which is where I discovered what this rare rifle is.

I owned it for a brief time, then I used it in trade for my Ballard. I was allowed $500 credit for the rifle from another gun store. Only this time when I went in to trade, I took all the proof of what the gun was, and when they took off the stock to examine it, the year 1939 was stamped into the underside of the action.

So successful buying and selling is really about people and your ability to read them. The first gunstore owner was a don’t-wanter, who just wanted to see that rifle go out of his store. Any deal he could get was better than no deal at all. The second gunstore owner was intrigued by the (truthful) story I told him about the history of this rare gun. In all honesty, this is one of the very few times I’ve actually been on the winning side of such negotiations. Usually, I’m the one returning home with a handful of magic beans.

People are the key, which is why the American Pickers are successful at what they do. They don’t need to know every disgusting detail about every object they buy. They just have to know what people will buy.

It’s also why the Pawn Stars (another reality TV show about a pawn shop) are able to buy fabulous things for trifling money — because they can read the sellers and they know their customers. Rock Island Auctions does the same. They know what buyers are looking for and approximately what they might be willing to pay for it.

I wish I could boil all of this down to a few simple rules that would help us do better when buying and selling things, but I can’t. In fact, the only rule that seems to come out of all of this is that there are no simple rules. But there are things to think about.

Some buying and selling tips
If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Greed is a powerful enemy, and just when you think you’re about to make the deal of a lifetime, it strikes. You wind up with pockets full of anecdotes instead of treasure.

Blood attracts sharks. If you don’t know what a thing is worth, for gosh sakes, keep that to yourself!

The first to speak loses. When it comes to setting a price, don’t be the one to do it. Let the other guy go first. You’ll be surprised at how many times you’ll be surprised.

Be slow to talk and fast to listen. Let the other guy do the talking while you try to evaluate his motivation. If you sense the seller is a don’t-wanter, you may be able to strike a favorable deal.

Honesty is always the best policy. On one episode of Pawn Stars, a woman came into the pawn shop to sell a broach. It was a large 18-karat gold spider that she thought was festooned with crystals. In fact, it was Fabregé, and the “crystals” were precious gemstones. When she asked $2,000 for it the pawn shop owner countered with an offer of $15,000. Sure, he could have bought it for what she asked and kept that segment out of the TV show, but I think he wanted the message of honesty to get across. And it certainly did.

When I buy an airgun to resell, I tell the buyer everything I know about it, including the price I think it could bring. Then, I make an offer that will be 40 to 50 percent of the price I named. While some people are turned off by this tactic, others understand where I am coming from. I may say something should sell for $500, but when I finally do sell it, I might only get $375 for a variety of reasons. The fact that I paid $250 isn’t bad, because I still made a little money. I may have had to make repairs to the gun or I may have held onto it for three years before it finally sold at the reduced price, so it’s not like I’m making money hand over fist.

Other times things work out in my favor, and I really do make a windfall. Lucky me. But that only happens often enough to offset those times when I let my own greed get in the way and get taken like a country bumpkin. My last such bad deal lost me about a thousand dollars, and I’m sure the other guy is still laughing over it.

While we’re on the subject of losing…when it happens to you take it like a man. If you don’t ever want to get taken by dishonest people, don’t buy and sell things. It’s a simple as that. Larceny is embedded in some people’s DNA, and they cannot do something unless it is illegal or immoral. They usually don’t look different than all other folks, and the best of them look like angels. That’s why they’re so good at what they do. If you can’t stand losing, don’t play the game.

So, my friend, what is your Daisy Buzz Barton, Wintzel CO2 pistol, or Falke model 90 worth? I don’t really know; but if it was mine, I would think long and hard about how best to sell it. A garage sale is probably not the place to start.